If Your Child Barely Eats Lunch At School, You Aren't Alone

by Wendy Wisner
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It’s the same story almost every day. I open my kindergartner’s lunch box, and it’s a damn mess. A sandwich with about two bites taken out of it, the rest of it in crumbly shambles. A banged up apple with one teenie-tiny bite. An unopened granola bar. And for good measure, a wet, soggy glob of string cheese that makes me gag.

In other words, my kindergartner comes home having barely eaten his lunch. Every. Single. Day.

Thankfully, I’m used to this sort of thing. My older son, now 11, did the same exact thing for almost all of elementary school, and only now is he beginning to make a dent in his lunch. Somehow, he survived, and I know my younger son will too.

I have a few theories about why some kids can’t seem to get it together and eat at school. I think it has a lot to do with the atmosphere in the cafeteria. It’s crowded and loud AF in there, for one. All school cafeterias are; that’s just the nature of the beast. It smells all kinds of ways, and for kids with sensory issues like my older son, this can be a real issue (he’s shared that he’s gagged from the cafeteria smells at times).

On top of all that, there is the socializing aspect of lunch, which can be distracting or downright stressful. Sure, there are grown-ups monitoring things, but kids tend to let loose a little more during lunch time, their personalities in full force. And that can be overwhelming, especially for the little, shy kids like my kindergartner.

Plus, some kids just eat better at home, where they can relax. Where it’s calm and familiar, and where they can take their time. That’s just the way it is for some kiddos.

Both of my kids come home starving at 3 o’clock, and I’ve learned to make sure that there is a meal waiting for them then. My kindergartner eats a mid-morning snack at school, too, so I know he doesn’t starve all day. (Side note: this mid-morning snack, which I try to keep small, probably sort of spoils his appetite for lunch. But what can you do?)

A few months ago, a fellow kindergarten dad confessed to me that his son was barely touching his lunch. The dad was worried. He thought his son must be the only one. When I told him that my kids did the same thing, he was definitely relieved. And from what I can tell, neither of us are alone. There are many, many kids out there eating barely anything at school, and saving their appetite for when they get home.

Sure, there are plenty of kids who eat their lunch just fine. And I realize, too, that for kids who live in poverty, skipping a free school lunch is not an option. There is a privileged aspect to being able to skip meals, and I definitely feel awful about the wasted food that my children bring home. But, at the same time, I know that being a kid is hard, going to school has its stresses, and it’s very common for children to not be able to eat much at all during the school day.

Listen, I’m not saying that I love it. I have tried all kinds of tactics to get my kids to eat more during the school day. I have even discussed it with their teachers, who tell me that they see this kind of thing often. I hate that my kids come home cranky and starved. I wish, too, that there was a way for schools to make the atmosphere of the cafeteria a little more mellow and conducive to calm eating.

But I’m also here to say that having a kid who eats like a bird at school is pretty common. As long as your child eats enough to survive and isn’t having a hard time functioning during the school day, everything is probably just fine. Kids are more durable than we think. I swear.

The silver lining is that most kids grow out of this phase. Just in the past year or so, my older son—who is about the pickiest eater in the world, and didn’t eat lunch at school for years—is finally bringing home an empty lunch box. It’s amazing. I think as he’s gotten older, he’s better able to tune out all the distractions of the cafeteria, and get down to business.

My little guy will get there too. Until then, I’ll be over here opening his disgusting lunch box every afternoon, cringing, holding my nose, cursing under my breath, and waiting as patiently as I can until this annoying phase is over.

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